Patti Wenzel

Should Milwaukee gamble with Parks and Transit?

By - Nov 10th, 2010 04:00 am

Empty pools could be in our future without budget reforms. Photo by Patti Wenzel

In the midst of the gubernatorial campaign, Scott Walker released his proposed 2011 county budget. His plan reduces the tax levy by $1 million from 2010 while adding $5.5 million to mental health care and $4 million to county parks.

However, Walker makes use of $24.5 million in employee concessions on benefits and compensation along with employee furloughs to make the figures work.

The problem — Walker hasn’t secured those concessions, and it is assumed an arbitrator would side with employees in any union grievance.

Late Monday night, following a month of combing through the details and hallway deal making, the county board presented their version of the budget, increasing the tax levy by $6.3 million over 2010. That’s a 2.4 percent increase in taxes if you’re doing the math.

The board’s budget includes the restoration of all but three freeway flyers in addition to maintaining the current hours of operation for all transit, $11 million in bonding for indoor pools and using $10 million in capital improvement funds to construct a new mental health hospital at the county grounds.

It also includes a 4 percent pension contribution by non-represented employees, a 2 percent increase in non-union wages and the possibility of more furlough days for union workers.

All of this was being debated under the cloud of structural deficits caused by concessions and phantom budgeting. The continued use of these deficits had Supervisor John Weishan boiling mad and he had an extreme proposal to wake up taxpayers and Madison to the problem.

“The county executive has presented us with illegal budgets with concessions from employees,” Weishan said. “And we continuously make the hard choice speech, but don’t do anything. This game has to come to an end. The only way to get $5.5 million for a emergency crisis center (a project advanced by Supervisor Peggy West) is to stop services in other places. Well here it is.”

“It” was two amendments to stop all buses and close the parks on March 31, 2011 and move the remainder of  the transit and parks 2011 budgets into the county’s general contingency fund. Weishan said this would provide a buffer in that fund, which may be needed to cover employee compensation if concessions aren’t agreed to.

Supervisor John Weishan. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee County.

Weishan also wants the new legislature and Governor-Elect Scott Walker to see what the refusal to authorize the voter-approved 1 percent sales tax increase for transit, parks and emergency services will lead to.

“This puts it at Madison’s door. The only way to get attention is to draw a line in the sand.”

“There is a gaping hole in our budget and it is a falsehood to say the pools will be open in June and July when we will be forced to close them. It is illegal to have a budget that rests on out-of-control concessions that can be reversed by an arbitrator.”

But Weishan’s line in the sand went too far for his board colleagues, who like Michael Mayo, were unwilling to gamble with transit and parks.

“I will vote no. I support transit and we can’t gamble with our people. I hope the new governor will support our system, but the point is we need the transit system and people who need it are willing to pay for it,” Mayo said.

Will we see more signs like this in the future? Photo by Patti Wenzel

Weishan encouraged the board to take the gamble saying that otherwise, they’re just postponing the inevitable. “The fact is cuts need to be made and the executive didn’t have the guts to do it and neither do we. We must stand up to Madison and support the 1 percent sales tax initiative.”

Instead, they voted against the measures and moved on to other amendments to save dollars or fund the contingency, most of which fell in defeat.

Weishan’s move was bold and destined to fail, but how long can we go without dedicated funding for our buses and parks?  The time is near when these two services, which are not mandated by the state, will become expendable.

Milwaukee’s forefathers understood the importance of providing public transit and parks so that citizens could get to work and have opportunities to recreate, but will future supervisors agree? When the needs — public safety and care for the most vulnerable — exceed what people are willing to pay for, the wants and discretionary items will have to go.

What will happen to our community then?

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